In 1987, director Paul Verhoeven brought the near-future RoboCop to the big screen, a satirical romp highlighting issues of media, capitalism and cyborg identity. Groundbreaking in its practical and digital effects, the ’87 film has now been re-booted with José Padilha’s take on the Alex Murphy/RoboCop character.
With designs inspired by the original, the 2014 pic presents the threat of law-fighting cyborgs in a somewhat more menacing and realistic way, an aspect that the film’s visual effects teams sought to capitalize on with the latest tools and techniques. In doing so, they also ensured that Padilha could draw on his significant experience in documentaries in order to bring a future Detroit – controlled mostly by the OmniCorp corporation – to life.
“We had to work out,” recalls overall visual effects supervisor James. E. Price, “how do we allow this filmmaker, who likes to keep things very loose, do long takes, move the camera a lot? How do we give him freedom, so he’s not held back by the visual effects? We settled on brute force techniques, like putting in these rigs and rods and knowing we would be painting them out later, and being comfortable augmenting suits and environments.”
We take a look at just some of the major visual effects shots and sequences in the new RoboCop with the film’s lead vendors.
Above: Mike Seymour looks into the suit creation VFX in RoboCop, thanks to our media partners at WIRED.
The future of news
The action: Throughout the film, the action occasionally cuts to a news programme called ‘The Novak Element’ hosted by Patrick ‘Pat’ Novak (Samuel L. Jackson) deploring the US government’s opposition against the use of robot soldier tech domestically.
The effects: Novak utilizes a series of high-tech holograms and projections to communicate his message, effects delivered by Method Studios.
On set, Jackson performed against greenscreen heavily markered and complimented with c-stands for eyeline matching. “It certainly didn’t hurt that we had such an engaging and effects-savvy performer in Sam Jackson,” says Price. “When we shooting the scene, he just technically was perfect – he would hit his marks and get the looks perfect every time.”
The idea for the holograms and projections was that they would be ‘live’ in the television studio with Novak – they were not chromakeyed in like a weather map may be today. For this reason the graphics would be seen both in shots indicating the broadcast as well as those showing cameras pointing at Jackson. “A lot of concept work was done,” notes Price. “We knew we wanted this to be an immersive environment.”
Method Design, a creative group that is part of Method Studios, set about organizing the data and graphics to display as Novak talks and gesticulates. “It was actually quite a challenging project as there wasn’t a lot of time to pull it together,” says Method Studios visual effects supervisor Nordin Rahhali. “There were also sometimes multiple vendors working on shots, so we’d get some of the military content, then we were doing all the panels, and then other shots. So we had to find the screen content and make the interactions make sense.”
Live from Tehran
The action: During The Novak Element broadcast, the host crosses live to Tehran where OmniCorp’s robots are in use by the US Military. Here, insurgents attempt to blow themselves up on television but are foiled by the robot soldiers and drones.
The effects: A location in Toronto served for plate photography, with set extensions and digital ED-208, ED-209s and flying drones created by Framestore under visual effects supervisor Rob Duncan.
“We built just the lower two stories of each building on a backlot set in Toronto,” recounts Price. “So Framestore had to extend the buildings and added most of the tops except where the insurgents appear. They also extended streets and created the landscape beyond.”
The ED-208s – human-looking robots – were completely digital creations. On set, production utilized a full-size photo-ready ED-208 created by Legacy for reference, while performers in gray suits stood in and would later be replaced. “We didn’t do any motion capture for the 208s per se,” notes Price, “but we did set up witness cameras and we did photograph them in the plate. They also worked with a motion coach to perform in a robotic way. But part of the reason we didn’t do live mocap, was that the 208s are robots and all manufactured the exact same way. And we knew that our stunt people weren’t going to do that, although they gave a great approximation.”
The bi-pedal 209s were not built for on-set use, although a full-sized aluminum bar frame on wheels served as reference. “We could drag it through the frame and had people operating it in the shots,” says Price. “It gave the camera operators, the directors and the actors something to focus on. We did create a sixth or quarter of the head of the ED 209 which had two different angled surfaces. We nicknamed it the ‘car door’ and then we pulled that through the scenes for lighting reference also.See a walk around of Legacy’s full-scale EM-208.
Framestore utilized a cyberscan of Legacy’s ED-208 as well as extensive photogrammetry to model the digital equivalent. As it did for other sequences in the filming involving a CG RoboCop, the studio then employed its physically plausible lighting and rendering pipeline built around Arnold to complete the robots for the Tehran sequence. “It really allowed us to push the envelope because the renders gave us such a great start,” states Duncan.
The action: RoboCop’s trademark suit – seen in both silver and black form – was of course a key design element in the film.
The effects: Legacy Effects used art department designs to construct several suits and suit pieces, with an early decision made for various digital effects vendors to augment or render RoboCop completely in CG.
“From a technical standpoint we looked at all different options,” recalls Price. “We looked at no suit, we looked at a torso suit as they had done when shooting Iron Man, and then all the way to a full suit. At the end of the day we decided to go with the suit with CG augmentation. Jose our director is a documentary filmmaker and he wanted to bring that doco style and energy. And that meant for us a lot of long takes, a lot of different cameras, a lot of framing changes in the same shot. We might start tight and then go wide, or vice versa. We thought that no matter what, if we do have a suit, there will be pieces of it we can use.”Watch a featurette about RoboCop’s suit, including a look at Legacy Effects’ work on the practical build.
Legacy built a hero and stunt suit that could be worn by the actor playing Alex Murphy/RoboCop (Joel Kinnaman) and stunt performers. “In most cases, we would shoot it pretty much as is,” says Price. “If there were scenes where we knew the augmentation would be particularly tricky, we would put markers on the suits, but our hope was that if we left the suit on there would be some angles and moments where we would get away with a practical suit. Those ended up being few and far between but we always had a full practical suit to start with.”
Framestore’s new digs
RoboCop represented Framestore’s first complete collaboration between its London and new Montreal offices. For the studio it was important operations ran smoothly between both locations. “We approached it from the point of view that everything had to be the same between sites,” says Duncan. “I supervised work across both offices and in many ways it didn’t matter where it was being done. It went incredibly well.”
Digital augmentation took two forms. The first was what Price referred to as ‘slimming’. “It was really important for us to not look like a guy in a suit,” he says (in the film it is ultimately revealed that the only remaining body parts of Murphy are his head, breathing tract and lungs). “And even when you’ve got an actor who’s as slender and fit as Joel, you put them in a suit and it still adds bulk that tells the audience it’s a performer in a suit. So we would do things like tapering the left and right, and front to back to give him proportions that couldn’t possibly be a performer in a suit.”
In some cases this could be achieved by rotoscoping RoboCop’s outline and stretching and tweaking the suit before restoring the background. Other times it involved varying degrees of CG additions or complete replacement. “When we were on set,” says Price, “you saw into the rubber black undersuit that Joel was wearing under the hard shell. We wanted mechanical moving pieces under the shoulders, in the arms, under the torso area, hips and thighs and knees. And we also wanted negative space, again to show it was not a guy in a suit.”
Framestore was one of several vendors responsible for crafting CG suit augmentations (as well as delivering many full-CG shots of RoboCop). “In doing that,” notes Duncan, “we didn’t throw away the practical suits or practical photography at all. We were very respectful of Joel’s performance. That’s why when we replaced him we matched him 100 per cent, because we didn’t want to make different choices than were made on the day.”
Duncan considers the studio’s move to Arnold a major factor in just how many shots involved full CG suit augmentation. “It meant we could replace more parts,” he says. “Otherwise we would have to be doing some very labour-intensive body tracking. Quite often we went down the route of lighting a CG suit – I think that’s really because of Arnold.”
Key moments for Framestore’s digital RoboCop replacements take place in Dr. Norton’s (Gary Oldman) lab. Shots include Murphy storming out as well as having his brain further tampered with. A key sequence also includes the stunning brain and lungs reveal, as RoboCop’s suit parts are disassembled. “It’s one of the scenes that made me most want to work on the movie,” comments Price. “It does force you to ask all those questions that the movie asks – who are we? It’s really a chilling scene.”
To create the sequence, Kinnaman was filmed wearing most of the practical suit. “It had to be real and intimate,” says Price, “so we just put Joel in the scene with Gary Oldman. We put his boots on for the right height – and left helmet on – left his body out of suit so we could photograph his breathing and his throat, so when we created his lungs and heart and windpipe digitally, we could match to his performance.”
Framestore then worked closely on the metal suit piece removals, reconstructing parts of the lab behind RoboCop, as well as the organic body parts. “We researched what human organs looked like out in the open, and threw all of it together. It was a long process, but the first time I saw the brain and the lungs and heart, they looked real already.”
At one point, RoboCop returns to his home – the scene of his murder – to carry out a 3D reconstruction of the location. Soho VFX worked on suit augmentations and replacements for his arrival there and his motorcycle ride through the city.
“Our original task was going to be to patch the suit, move the shoulders, clean up the reflections on the visor, narrow the waist, etc,” says Soho visual effects supervisor Berj Bannayan. “But it was a real challenge to try to track on all those little pieces and get that feel of one piece. After a week or so of attacking the shots, we decided to take another tact and replace the suit entirely.”
“When he’s on the bike,” adds Bannayan, “we replaced him from the waist up, but in the rest of that sequence he’s entirely CG. We had incredible lighting reference from on set. We took the model that came from production and re-rigged him and used our own shaders and rendering pipeline. It made the task much easier because we could just roto-mate on top of him and make sure we had his mass and motion working well. It also had the added advantage of being to change his motion and expose any gears or robotic elements – again trying to sell that he wasn’t a guy in a suit.”
Other vendors, too, delivered CG suit enhancements, including Cinesite and Mr. X.
The action: As Murphy, now RoboCop, awakens he dreams of being at a backyard party with his wife, but soon realizes he is attached to medical apparatus in Dr. Norton’s lab.
The effects: The moment of realization comes with a circular move around Murphy that pixelates from the backyard to the lab in one shot. Method Studios married two separate plates and achieved the transition effect.
“It’s one of the first moments where RoboCop realizes who he is – it’s the idea that his dream is being invaded by the reality,” says Rahhali. The two separate plates were filmed without the use of motion control, although a similar dolly move around the actor was performed for both. Method decided to take over the camera move from the ‘A’ backyard plate as it becomes the much more brightly lit ‘B’ lab side.
“Once we were able to take over the camera and come up with a seamless move,” explains Rahhali, “we were then able to focus in on transitional elements and effects to help bridge the gap between one plate and the other.”
The move evolved into a 2000 frame shot. For the correct look of the computerized transition, Method developed concept art based on four key frames and then carried out a test on just 250 frames in the middle. Effects for the transition were created in Houdini while some elements of the backyard and lab were re-built and re-projected to match the shot. “Ultimately it involved a lot of tracking love and compositing love to marry those plates in place,” says Rahhali.
The action: OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars visits Dr. Norton in a rehabilitation ward where men and women learn to use their advanced robotic prosthetic limbs.
The effects: Soho VFX created various CG limbs, including hands and arms for a scene in which a man plays a guitar.
“The guitar player was a real concert guitar player,” advises Soho visual effects supervisor Berj Bannayan, who also acted as the production’s second unit VFX supe on the film. “He played the guitar as if he was struggling with it in places and then we replaced him basically from the elbows down.”
Using a preliminary model of how Padilha wanted the arms to appear, Soho refined the look so that the fingers and hands would physically work, had the appropriate weight and have a correct range of motion. “Early on, too,” adds Bannayan, “we decided to do the guitar in full CG, since his robot hands were much thinner than his real hands, and we didn’t want to do clean-up on the whole guitar and have to paint back in reflections.”
Animators followed the actor’s musical performance, carefully ensuring the correct notes were hit and string bending and vibrations occurred. The CG toolkit included Maya for animation, modeling and rigging, 3Delight for rendering and NUKE for compositing. “Importantly, it had to look like a combination of plastics and metal,” says Bannayan, “and it had to feel a little like brushed metal. We re-built our metal shaders and did physically real metal from measured indexes of refraction, for example. We rendered it as if it had been made out of titanium, but still as a prototype prosthetic that included a few machine marks on it.”
The action: In order to test RoboCop’s abilities in the field, he takes on several EM-208s in a training area.
The effects: Mr. X created digital EM-208s, plus a digital and augmented RoboCop for the skirmish.
The sequence was filmed in an abandoned power plant in Toronto. “It’s huge,” exclaims Price, “which means we didn’t actually need to do any extensions. The effects involved replacing the gray suited performers standing in for EM-208s and then augmenting RoboCop or making him completely CG. Then there were also the displays of the bunker and Robo’s HUD in the shots.”Watch a clip from the sequence.
The area was heavily photographed and LIDAR scanned. “We knew every grid point mapped out by the pillars there,” explains Mr. X visual effects supervisor Aaron Weintraub. “So we knew where the action was taking place in turns of a co-ordinate system. We could use the correct HDRI as Robo and the 208s moved through the environment.”
“Also,” continues Weintraub, “there was just so much detail in the place that matchmoving was relatively straightforward. “Everything was at right angles which is a dream for tracking and lining everything up later. Also, as tracking markers there were a lot of really high contrast things all over the place, like bits of rebar and metal, that made automating the tracking process easier.”
The RoboCop suit – now in version 3.0 with a black matte and shiny surface – was created and modeled by Mr. X (and then shared with other vendors on the film). It was used for both completely CG RoboCop shots and those requiring augmentation. For the EM-208s, Mr. X took Framestore’s model and adapted that for its Maya and V-Ray pipeline. They also had the benefit of Legacy’s practical EM-208 being pulled through the scenes for lighting reference.
RoboCop takes down the EM-208s with ease. “It was up to us to implement the right amount of destruction and effects for destroying the robots,” says Weintraub. “There’s a shot towards the end of the sequence where he rips one of the robot’s heads off. We got to design the pipes and wires that come out.”
Some dramatic sweeping moves made up a number of shots to show the positions of the EM-208s. These were achieved via a cable cam system strung up between the rafters. On-the-ground views were mostly Steadicam plates, while some speedier shots involved a 4×4 APV with a Steadicam mounted on its front. “We generally shot a lot of clean plates,” notes Weintraub, “but the actual plates were mostly hand-held, run and gun, so that meant the clean plates were static views of the environment or attempts to re-create the shot. So there was a lot of patching and re-projections and reflecting robots in the puddles.”
RoboCop’s POV graphics and displays were created for the sequence by yU+co (which also handled various other POV shots in the film such as those of Murphy searching through crime footage and also carrying out threat assessments). In the field test, RoboCop scans the vast environment and creates a 3D simulation. “We wanted to make it very clean design-wise but also very believable,” outlines yU+co designer Mert Kizilay. “So here we had outline renders and on top of that we wanted to add point clouds to represent the scanned environments.”
The 3D simulation was realized in Cinema 4D, with the point clouds produced inside NUKE and final compositing in After Effects. “What we did was take the roll footage and convert it into 3D space,” says Kizilay. “Once we were in 3D, we were in our own world, so we animated the camera and showed various angles. Then we could come back to the starting point once RoboCop has done his assessment.”
RoboCop vs the ED-209s
The action: Murphy learns of Sellars’ plan to destroy him, and heads to the OmniCorp building in search of the CEO. Here he encounters several ED-209s in the lobby.
The effects: Production filmed the action-filled sequence at the Vancouver Convention Center with minimal robot interaction or practical effects, necessitating significant digital work by Framestore.
“OmniCorp is a big company and we were searching for a location that would suit,” says Price. “We found that in the VCC. What we actually did was make the Center the lobby, so in exteriors of the OmniCorp building if you look closely you’ll see an accurate model of if at the base.”Watch a clip from the sequence.
With Padilha, Price conducted a walk-through of the building and blocked out scenes, even shooting video of the director acting out the fight sequences. The Third Floor then created previs for the battle. “A main goal for the previs was to help determine the movements and choreography for RoboCop as he fights multiple giant robot units,” explains Third Floor previs artist Shoghi Castel de Oro. “He needed to be able to effectively dodge their fire while staying true to his “economy of movement” signature style.”
In particular, the previs served as a template for what would end up being quite frenetic and close-up action. “We did a pass of animation with the character doing modified tai chi’esque moves around them,” says Castel de Oro, “and we later truncated these to simple rolling and turning movements. I used reference from the original film as well as old Mech Warrior video games to previsualize the movement of the 209s, and Robo just had to look clean and concise with his movements. Lens choices got wider as we got under the 209s and stayed wide overall when Robo was running around, mainly to provide contrast to the tighter cropping on him when he was shooting.”
VCC plates were filmed at night, sometimes shot with Kinnaman or a stunt double in frame, and sometimes as clean plates. Since the production could obviously not damage the Convention Centre, only minor practical effects, including an exploding dummy column rigged to fire, were filmed.
This meant that that Framestore was tasked with orchestrating the digital ED-209s and a digi-RoboCop for most of the shots, plus a high degree of destruction featuring glass, metal, concrete, dust and fiery explosions owing to laser fire. “The challenge was to keep continuity between shots, once the sequence edit had been turned over,” says Duncan. “We needed to know what destruction happened at each point. You needed to see the aftermath of it, or you needed a pre-roll in each shot to get to where you were.”
To help with continuity, Framestore blocked out the action, destruction, explosions and gunfire only roughly at first and also developed a special ‘bullet system’. “What we would do,” outlines Duncan, “is put either RoboCop or the ED-209 in the shot, and animation would put some locators in terms of when a robot would be firing. That would then trace a line from the muzzle of what gun it was and determine where the bullet would hit in the set, and it would trigger an explosion or a puff of dust. So it let us get a sense of how chaotic it might be.”
“It also allowed us to not go too far down the animation route before realizing the robot was shooting too much or not enough or aiming in the wrong direction,” adds Duncan. “These were things we wanted to solve before lighting and comp happened too. It also meant we didn’t have these magic bullets that could curve around corners – we couldn’t cheat the fight.”
As it had done for other sequences, yU+co contributed key POV graphics for the RoboCop vs. ED-209 fight, including imagery of Robo calculating his trajectory when jumping. The studio also created views as seen from the ED-209s which had a green tinge attached to them.
The action: After his vicious showdown against the 209s, Murphy is next scene in Dr. Norton’s lab in his only remaining human form – notably his head and lungs – before being reassembled in the classic silver suit.
The effects: Matching to the earlier similar sequence completed by Framestore, Method Studios handled the reassemble, as well as extending the space and adding background ED-209s to the lengthy shots.
Additional modeling, rigging and texturing went into the RoboCop CG model which Method received from Framestore. Kinnanman was filmed wearing the full practical suit which then needed to be selectively removed. “That meant we could use all of his natural motion,” states Rahhali, “and get a reading on his chest and throat movements for our lung animation.”
The re-building stages involved many moving parts that were modeled and rigged by Method with extensive texturing done in MARI and Photoshop. “Since some shots were so long – more than 600 frames – we had to come up with a concept of how it would all move so it didn’t become boring,” says Rahhali.
Images and clips copyright © 2014 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.